Grimentz, Switzerland - A drought in a resort famous for its epic snowfall; a mountain with the best steep terrain anywhere… in a heatwave; crud, slush, mud: the life of the off-piste skier can be as frustrating as it is ruinous. And when the snow gods do deliver, plagues of skiers can strip mountains in minutes while you sniff armpits in a cable car.
It was easy to imagine I was cursed until, last month, I visited a place where the snow was so abundant, the cobbled streets and chalets so beautiful, and the competition so thin that fellow skiers begged me not to repeat its name.
Grimentz is just 15 miles from Verbier but a world away. Credit: AFP
Grimentz (sorry guys) is just 15 miles from Verbier but a world away. Hidden at the end of the Val d'Anniviers in the Swiss Alps, up a precipitous, switchbacking road from the town of Sierre, it has a couple of hotels and one nightclub. High-altitude, varied terrain and decent lifts ought to earn it a spot on any adventurous skier's to-go list. Yet, on a crisp day between blue skies and a foot of fresh snow, we were alone.
Nick Parks was my guide, Will Herrington my host. They've skied everywhere, pretty much, in careers spanning 25 years or more: Parks as a guide whose clients include Bear Grylls, and Herrington in tourism. They are among very few English skiers who call the valley home.
Parks took me to Zinal, where he runs off-piste trips with his firm, Mountain Tracks. A 20-minute drive from Grimentz, it will be linked to the village next season with a new cable car. Until then, gravity is enough to take you from Zinal's highest lift to Grimentz. I plotted a course between the trees on the fly, popping off stumps and boulders turned into pillowy vaults by the snow. We paused to walk across the vast Moiry Dam and watched a pair of ibex, our only company, leap between rocks.
Yet the peace was short-lived back in Grimentz, one of the few places in the Alps where heli-skiing (slopes accessed by helicopter rather than ski lift) is permitted. Our destination: the top of the Pigne d'Arolla, reached in 10 minutes via stomach-lurching swoops over ridges.
Chopper gone and peace returned, I hiked to the summit to gawp at some of the greatest peaks in the Alps, including the shark-tooth Matterhorn. A run of almost 1,800 vertical metres lay ahead, including a steep pitch where I enjoyed the tantalising lapping at the tops of my knees by light, fluffy snow. By the end of that day alone, I had encountered more untracked powder than during several previous winters.
In Grimentz, where centuries-old granaries stained black by the elements could fuel a one-village postcard industry, I stayed at Chalet CBC, one of a handful of luxury properties Herrington manages. He has lived in the village for almost a decade with his wife, Anna Walker, the former Wish You Were Here...? presenter, deciding he and their three children wouldn't wish to be anywhere else. Herrington attributes the valley's low profile to the “marvellous absence of British tour operators”: there just aren't enough beds to lure them.
I skied yet more perfect snow with a group from Ski Club Freshtracks, the only UK operator serving Grimentz. Their guide, Romain Tavelli, was born in the valley and is relaxed about its seclusion, though his group threatened to do me harm if I shared their secret. They'll know where to find me next season… *
Rental Prestige (rentalprestige.com) manages luxury properties in Grimentz, including Chalet CBC. Heli-skiing costs from £200 (about R2 400). Guide fees start at £370 a day. Ski Club Freshtracks (skiclub.co.uk) runs trips to Grimentz in January and March. Mountain Tracks (mountain tracks.co.uk) runs trips to Zinal from January to April. Swiss (swiss.com) serves Geneva from Heathrow and City airports, and can arrange rail transfers to Sierre
1 Go skiing in the Atlas Mountains, in the shadow of Africa’s highest peak, with more off-piste than on, all of which is just two hours from Marrakech (lawrenceofmorocco.com)
2 Nowhere does skiing quite like Japan, with sushi on the slopes, mountains home to natural hot springs, and resorts that include the former Winter Olympics hub of Hakuba (insidejapantours.com)
3 Ski the backcountry of Banff in Alberta, and stay at Skoki Mountain Lodge. Unless you’ve got a helicopter (as did the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, who stayed at this Canadian retreat last year) the only access is by snowshoe (inghams.co.uk)
4 Winter in the Alps, summer in the Andes; this is the routine for snow junkies who can get a quick snow fix on a daytrip from the Chilean capital of Santiago, at powder-rich Valle Nevado (journey latinamerica.co.uk)
5 Ski the Arctic Circle in Swedish resorts around Lulea. Try snow-shoeing, ice-fishing, husky-sledding and bed down in some architecturally interesting accommodation: a futuristic treehouse and the celebrated Ice Hotel (best-served.co.uk)
6 Didn’t get a break this season? Then wait until summer and head Down Under, to New Zealand’s fjord-backed and localwine- fuelled alpine resorts (travelbag.co.uk)
7 Follow the ski bums east, to the fast developing resort of Gulmarg, in the Indian Himalayas. This is frontier skiing, with endless off-piste 3,890m above the Kashmiri landscape (industours.co.uk) - The Independent on Sunday